Facing the big E
As the number of species facing extinction increases, RANJIT LAL wonders when humans will wake up to the dangers of their ways.
Sunset? ... when the white backed vulture, as a species, faces the threat of extermination, what hope is there for other wildlife?
YOU read about it, hear about it, see films on television about it, and are warned (ad nauseam) about it, but only when it happens in your own backyard do you realise its full impact like a kick in the stomach. Extinction, the big E, the final death from which there are no comebacks. Oh, yes, it happens naturally too, but extinction by natural causes has long been overshadowed by extinction by human hand.
For many years, the highlight of the annual visit to the Keoladeo National Park (Bharatpur) was the darshan of the small flock of Siberian Cranes that spent the winter there. Always, there would be a gaggle of people ogling the graceful white birds with their scarlet hoods and staring yellow eyes. Every year, the warnings became more and more dire as the number of arrivals fell. After delays and bureaucratic hassles, a last ditch attempt was made to track their exact migratory routes, so as to be able to better protect this flyway. Even to introduce hand-reared birds into the wild flock in the hope they would integrate. They were wired (with transmitters) and released in the park in the hope they would befriend the wild ones and fly back with them. It didn't work. Now no more Siberian Cranes visit Bharatpur every winter, and the jewel in its crown has gone. Of course we were quick to point out that it was not our fault (not entirely at least); the birds were simply shot out of existence while over flying trigger-happy territories in Afghanistan and Pakistan. All we can now do is console ourselves that at least the birds have not become totally extinct though there's no saying how long this will remain true as their breeding grounds are increasingly encroached upon.
The case of the bustard
Back in the early 1990s, I visited the Karera Sanctuary in Madhya Pradesh, which had been set up in 1981 to protect that marvellously snooty princeling the Great Indian Bustard. Nose in the air, the birds flounced and tripped haughtily amidst the rocks and tussocks and agricultural fields (there were 22 villages in the area) of this sanctuary and were fondly called Son Chiriya (Golden Bird) by the villagers. But there lived another equally snooty but far more dangerous princeling in Karera the blackbuck whose reputation as a crop raider was unparalleled and whose numbers had been kept under control by the local thakurs who hunted them, Now with official protection and lack of natural predators, they went ballistic from 60 harmless animals to a destructive horde of 2,000. An unsympathetic Forest Department refused to entertain the complaints of the farmers. Angered, they in turn blamed their troubles on the existence of the sanctuary. It protected the hated blackbuck, but its raison d'etre was the bustard. So it had to pay ... In addition mismanagement of the habitat (in the face of sound scientific recommendations made by the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), which had been studying the bustard) just hastened the end. By 1994, there were no Great Indian Bustards in Karera and the bird can no longer be seen in a place that was specially set aside for its protection. Surely there can be no greater failure than that.
And the vulture
Sometimes extinction just sneaks up on/to you like an unpleasant undetected illness. Not so many years ago, I used to watch every evening, the vultures come in to land on the big trees in the Quidsia Gardens next door, like big bomber squadrons returning after a raid. I never dreamt that these seemingly ironclad birds could be in any danger. In the mornings they used to huddle around the big overhead water tank, awaiting the thermals that would bear them aloft. And then, suddenly there were no vultures in the skies anymore, and everyone was talking about (and quarrelling over) the reasons for their disappearance. Here, the unpleasant undetected illness (caused apparently by an anti-inflammatory medication given to livestock and ingested by the birds feeding on their carcasses) had snuck up on the unfortunate vultures and all but wiped them out. But really, it is a telling blow. If we can't even keep a bird like the vulture going whose digestive powers must surely be the most potent in the business then what hope do we have to protect anything else?
Every time I go birding to the Yamuna, I return uneasy. So many birds, so many ducks, geese, waders, et al swimming, wading and feeding blithely in that stinking, foaming, sewer that we (hypocrites!) call a sacred river. Ingesting the filth and the toxic chemicals and heavy metals we disgorge into it every day. Surely one day, it will be payback time... One day all the poisons accumulated will strike in a gargantuan multi-species wipe out and that will be that. And, eyes (and nose) closed we plan fanciful river (sewer!) front parks and malls, without doing anything about cleaning up the mess!
Already, from all over the world, voices are being heard, expressing concern over the well-being and future of that perky cosmopolitan cheerleader, the house sparrow. It seems they're disappearing fast, from gardens, backyards, neighbourhoods, suburbs, villages and towns, and some of the statistics tracking their downfall are truly staggering. The reasons being cited for this "debacle-in-progress" are wide and varied. The villains include the impact of modern steel and glass architecture (which is not sparrow-friendly), the changes in the eating habits of people, the emissions from lead-free petrol, the effect of cellular phones and microwave towers, the changes in crop patterns, and the impact of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. At least their absence has been noted and maybe it is not too late to take some kind of affirmative action. None of the four cases described above are yet final in the absolute sense of the term "extinction". But there's no doubting the fate awaiting their victims if we continue with our reckless, wanton ways. Really, it is time to look around and take stock of our world a little more carefully. One day we might just find ourselves all alone and the last in line on a death row of our own making.
Send this article to Friends by